The Basics of Outlining Your Novel

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Learn about the basics of outlining your novel to ensure an as-easy-as-can-be writing process.

Outlining can be an imperative part of the writing process, though it doesn’t always have to be. It can help you flush out critical details, avoid and identify plot holes, decrease actual time spent writing by knowing what you’re writing next, and easily foreshadow future twists.

Let’s Outline Your Novel

Outlines can help with the flow of writing and they can stifle your creativity – or, at least that’s what I’ve gathered from people who both advocate and oppose their usage. But we aren’t all the same, which means some of our brains work differently and require some sort of a plan to get us through.

Outlining is my plan, and I use it as a tool to recognize when my ideas are ready to hit the first page. When used as a tool, instead of a chore, the entire process can flow seamlessly from one step to another. Or chaotically in any order that best suits your mind. Especially when writing a series, outlining allows us to see the entire story’s structure from a bird’s eye view.

Every plot line, subplot, and under or overtone can be foreshadowed and tweaked easily.

For example, when writing a series, it’s essential to remember every book should be written as a standalone, AND that each novel should gear towards the series resolution. How do you do both? Outlining.

Creating worlds is hard enough without having to remember everything from all 12 books in your series. So a series bible is also really helpful.

Reasons to Outline Your Novel

  • OUTLINES GUIDE YOU THROUGH THE WRITING PROCESS FOR A SMOOTH TRANSITION FROM OUTLINING TO WRITING.
  • OUTLINES DECREASE AND POTENTIALLY ELIMINATE PLOT HOLES, SINCE YOU’RE THOROUGHLY AND REPEATEDLY GOING OVER YOUR NOVEL FROM FRONT TO BACK.
  • OUTLINES DECREASE ACTUAL TIME SPENT WRITING, SINCE YOU DON’T HAVE TO THINK UP SCENES AND PLOT POINTS ON THE SPOT.
  • OUTLINES CAN ALSO DECREASE TIME SPENT EDITING.
  • YOU CAN EASILY CREATE SUBPLOTS AND FORESHADOW WHILE ACTIVELY WRITING THEIR RESOLUTIONS.

Now that we’ve concluded why we outline, we can move on to methodology.

How to Outline Your Novel

Step #1 The thought dump

This step is one of the most important, because it allows you to get your ideas out of your mind and onto paper. By doing this, you can compile your ideas in one area for later dissecting and not get bogged down by them as you move through the process.

Step #2 Create character outlines and world building

When building out your characters think of things outside of the physical, outside of the eyes, ears, body shape, hair style and color, and skin color. Yes, you should consider these types of things, but also consider background stories, childhood memories, accents and quirky mannerisms, personal ideology, any sensitivities, and past and present sexual encounters.

Next, when it comes to world-building, it could be as expansive or as simple as you want, which is why I’m not going to go too far into it here. But if you are looking for something a little more detailed, check out my blog post on my guide to world building.

Step #3 Brainstorming

Okay, you’ve got a better understanding of your characters and their motivations, now you can use that information and compile more ideas of what they might do and how they might react in situations.

Step #4 Organize your ideas into scenes

This is where you have a mountain of ideas and you need to organize them into tangible scenes. Start piling scraps of paper that might go well together.

Step #5 Organizing scenes into chapters

Now, organize your scenes into fluid chapters and ask yourself questions like, where do I think this scene would best fit and make sense?

No, you might not use all your ideas, and that’s okay. Some of your ideas either won’t fit into your novel or, maybe, they weren’t that great to begin with. That’s right. I said it.

Step #6 Filling in the blanks

Now that you have a tangible outline of your novel, start filling in the blanks between chapters and scenes. Do people just float from a royal hall into a space system? This is where you’ll iron out the “overall” of the novel, before getting into the nitty-gritty.

Step #7 Read through and identify plot holes

Now that you THINK you have the entire plot built, take a little bit of time to step away (maybe a week or so) and then re-read through your outline and identify any plot holes, subplot holes, character inconsistencies, or any other conflicting information.

Step #8 Filling in MORE empty space

After you’ve figured out any inconsistencies, you can go back and both fix and elaborate upon the empty spaces between scenes – and, yes, there will be many.

Step #9 Letting it rest

Once you’ve gone through every step of the process, and you think your novel is ready to go, give it another rest. Whether for a week or a month, just get your mind off this work-in-progress and create something else.

Step #10 Reread the outline to catch any remaining plot holes

Once you’ve let your outline rest for as long as you can stand, give it one more read-through to ensure it’s both cohesive enough to actively work through and portrays the story and vision you have in mind.

You may come up with things during this phase that you’d like to add or exclude, and feel free to make these changes. Sometimes it’s better to do it before you start writing.

Please keep in mind that this process can take a week or six months. It entirely depends on several factors, including:

  1. Where you are on current projects,
  2. The workflow you have going on in your business,
  3. And personal objectives in family, home, and life.

How I keep everything organized:

Since I use Trello, these steps are a cinch. When I concoct a fresh idea, I open the app and make a new “List” in my “NOVEL IDEAS” Board, create a working title, and proceed to brain dump all my ideas, thoughts, and feelings into a “Card” I unironically title “Brain dump”.

This serves several purposes, including:

  • That I never run out of fresh ideas (I simply store them away for a later date);
  • Am always able to indulge new ideas that pop into my head (even if I’m presently working on a project);
  • And I can easily transfer ideas and access them whenever I want (since Trello is available on mobile and desktop).

I’ve already created a template for when I decide to actually proceed with a new project or idea, and I can easily transfer these Cards/Lists to this new Board once I’m ready, which might be days, weeks, or months after the idea pops into my head.

In my process, the “BRAIN DUMP” step usually comes months before the rest of the steps, because I keep myself consistently open to new ideas to ensure I’m open to every opportunity.

So, what about if you’re sitting down to iron out and outline your novel, but nothing comes to mind? In conclusion to this post on outlining, I’m going to leave you with my top seven tips to outline your novel.

Tips for Outlining Your Novel

Tip #1 Start with the climax

Just start at the end and work your way forward.

Tip #2 Take it one step at a time

Maybe make a goal of outlining one chapter before bed every night . And after a whole month, you’ll have an entire novel, or thereabouts.

Tip #3 Do it by hand, then transcribe

This is probably my BEST tip, and it’s gotten me through SO many (if not all) of my outlines. Like I’ve mentioned, I use Trello to organize my writing, but that doesn’t mean I only use that application throughout the process.

When I was gifted the idea of a fantasy novel, I couldn’t figure out how my characters got from A to B, how to include my main characters, or how they might impact other characters. Basically, my mind was blank.

It literally took me two months to iron out the first six chapters, and then I was done. So, instead of looking at a blank screen on my computer, I started a spiral notebook to gather my thoughts, and the entire story just flowed out of my head and onto those little college-ruled lines.

Tip #4 Don’t fore it; be patient

Yes, challenge yourself. Yes, push yourself passed where you think you can go. But don’t force your novel. Be patient and mix up your method; maybe you’re just in a slump.

Tip #5 Ask “What if” questions

Ask yourself questions like “What if my character ate something poisonous?” Or “What if his best friend tried to kill him, but it wasn’t really his best friend, or it was, but there was a reason behind it?” Obviously, these are a bit generic, but you get the idea. Just ask yourself off-the-wall questions until you get where you want to be.

Tip #6 Create random conflict and see where it takes you

Sometimes, random is the way to go. When I wrote my first novel, I just created “random” conflict when I couldn’t figure out what to do, and then either re-wrote it when a better idea came my way or left it and built to the seemingly “random” conflict.

Tip #7 Work off an existing subplot

If you’re having trouble with a specific aspect of your novel, you could try to redirect your process and see if a subplot can be brought closer to the forefront.

I realize that outlining isn’t for everyone, just like pants-ing isn’t; but these steps are something every writer goes through in one way or another while creating their story. This is simply my watered-down process and it works for me by helping me avoid writer’s block, work through my plot and subplots, and structure my workload.

ACTION STEP: Outlining can help people who are having trouble when “pants-ing” their novels. Have you hit a wall? Try taking a step back from your novel and working on the outline.